Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

By Rob Packer

Ernesto Sabato's "The Tunnel"

Buenos Aires has countless beautiful bookshops every few blocks, as well as a second-hand (and apparently pirated) book market in Palermo. For someone with a weakness for books after studying literature at university, this was an enormous temptation that I partially justified as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Argentina’s incredible literature.

I often feel that Ernesto Sabato, who died in May this year a few weeks from his 100th birthday, comes in as third-most-famous Argentine writer after Borges and Cortázar—especially internationally. Indeed, a quick look through European Amazon sites shows that the only book widely available in translation is his existentialist masterpiece, The Tunnel. His other two novels, Sobre héroes y tumbas and Abbadón el exterminador, and his essays (none of which I’ve read) seem much harder to come by.

I first read The Tunnel years ago and was immediately struck by the acerbic and pessimistic immediacy of Sabato’s prose, as the misanthropic artist (and likely psychopath) Juan Pablo Castel recounts what led him to murder María Iribarne, the “one person who could understand me”. The title and opening quotation refer to a “lonely and dark” tunnel that seals Castel off hermetically from everyone else in society.

Despite the general gloom, some moments of the novel seem comic, when Castel tells someone come to pick him up that he’s not Castel, or has a pang of regret and tries to retrieve a letter he’s already sent from the post office. Others seem eerily familiar as Castel over-analyses a smile or a single word, but then overdoes it drawing pseudo-logical conclusions about his girlfriend’s behaviour based on coincidence or circumstance. The motivation is sometimes understandable: the obsessive and violent results completely incomprehensible.

Prior to becoming a writer, Sabato was a promising physicist, studying atomic radiation at the Curie Institute in Paris after gaining his PhD, and was there when nuclear fission was discovered. The idea terrified Sabato and this, and the contacts he made with surrealists while in Paris, meant that he left the potentially apocalyptic world of science to shut himself in the Córdoba sierras and concentrate on writing. One of the results, The Tunnel, is an incredible and chilling first novel that I can’t recommend enough.

* You can also check out this documentary in Spanish on his life from Radio Nacional de España.

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